Games in Healthcare

FWD News: Fighting Addiction With Video Games

Khemia from the Vermont Quit Network Helps Smokers Fight Cravings.Addiction treatment experts and their patients are getting some new help from video game technology. Whether it is to kick a smoking habit, control binge eating, fight gambling addiction or curb alcoholism, there’s a game for that. While some are still in the development or research phase, these games are demonstrating great potential in tackling a variety of addictions.

Individuals who are trying to butt out can get assistance to fight craving with a free game called Khemia. This PC game was developed by Hoozinga Game Media for the Vermont Department of Health and is meant to provide a distraction for smokers who suddenly get the urge to light up. The State is attempting to reduce its number of smokers to 11 percent. Read More...

Khemia is designed to be simple and short, taking between three and five minutes to play, but requires players to be focused on the task at hand, shooting at small moving target. The game also offers traditional smoking cessation reinforcement techniques. “It definitely keeps your mind and your hands busy,” said Sheri Lynn, Chief of the Tobacco Control Program of the Vermont Health Department.

Amanda Crispel, President of Hoozinga explains that games “are ideal for trying to modify your behaviour.” The game developer specializes in serious games, such as this one, and works in collaboration with Champlain College’s Communication & Creative Media Division.

A demo of the game can be seen here, and the complete version is available for download on the Vermont Quit Network website.

Appearing in 2007 in the serious games landscape, the PlayMancer project is a collaborative effort from six European countries which aims to use virtual world game technology to improve health. Recently, the project has demonstrated positive results in the area of binge eating and drug addiction.

As part of the project, a study is taking place at the Bellvitge University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, which uses the game to help patients with a binge eating disorder recognize their emotions and regain self-control. “The video game is proving useful as a complimentary tool for some patients to control certain aspects of their personality, like impulsivity or tolerance to frustration,” said Fernando Fernández-Aranda, eating disorder researcher at the University.

“For instance, the video game can teach my patient to raise her tolerance to frustration, to lose impulsivity and to improve the organisation of her daily tasks so that she can obtain the goals she is looking for. She learns to understand her different states of mind, and she can control her different reactions; she knows what reactions are well adapted—and which are not—to states of mind like sadness or anxiety,” he added.

The game works to identify a variety of emotions in patients such as boredom, excitement and anxiety, as well as their cognitive responses. Captured through the use of emotion recognition technology and biosensors, this feedback can be helpful to identify psychological problems.

One project participant, speaking anonymously about using the PlayMancer software to control his gambling addiction, first found the game strange but after some time, began realizing the effect it had on his urges. “The video game helps me to know my state of mind at any given moment. For instance, it can help me to realise I’m becoming too nervous. So I can work on my own emotions to try to calm myself down.”

In dealing with addictive personalities, it became that much more important for researchers to avoid the pitfalls linked with compulsive video playing, requiring designers to avoid some of the usual game mechanics used to stimulate players.

“Technical developers first proposed a number of ideas. But we, psychologists, thought they were in fact too motivating and could be counter-productive to our patients. For instance, developers proposed a version where patients could play online with other people from different countries. We know from scientific literature that these online video games are highly addictive to certain vulnerable users. So we asked developers to just provide a simple video game that a patient can play alone and without score patterns,” says project researcher Susana Jiménez-Murcia.

Video footage (in German) of the PlayMancer virtual reality health game can be seen here.

Last but not least, Dutch and German researchers have recently published a study in the journal of the Association of Psychological Science about a new game-based cognitive behaviour therapy tool to help alcoholics stay sober. In an effort to “turn around impulsive responses” of alcoholic individuals, the game makes patients literally push away images of alcoholic drinks on a screen, using a joystick, creating an “avoidance bias” towards alcohol.

Compared to a control group who got no additional treatment, the test group—which played the game for about 15 minutes for four days in a row, along with word association tests—had relapsed in only 46 percent of cases, versus 59 percent for the others, one year after treatment.

Recounting an anecdote from one of the test subjects, Reinout W. Wiers, experimental psychologist at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences of the University of Amsterdam and the study’s lead researcher, points out how the game’s mechanics helped the patient face temptation and stay abstinent.

Looking for a soda in the refrigerator at a party, the patient found it full of beer instead. “Immediately, he made the push movement,” closing the door. “In the heat of the moment, when temptation is high, you have to take that immediate first step in the right direction or it becomes very difficult,” explains Wiers. “(Cognitive-bias modification) helps people take this step, before they have time to consciously think, ‘Should I take a drink?’”

While researchers cannot state that the game alone contributed to these results, Wiers strongly believes that adding the game to standard treatment can help recovering alcoholics stay sober.